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Saturday, October 19
Updated: October 22, 11:17 AM ET
Wild card or bust: Format works for Angels, Giants

By Jayson Stark

ANAHEIM -- To some people, it may mark the end of civilization as Kennesaw Mountain Landis used to know it.

An all-wild-card World Series, huh? A World Series that will determine the best team in baseball -- despite the minor technicality that NEITHER TEAM EVEN FINISHED IN FIRST PLACE?

It's amazing what this world of baseball has come to, here in the 21st century. But thanks to the Giants and Angels, what's equally amazing is how many people you can find roaming the streets of California who think this wild-card thing is a heck of an idea.

Like Jarrod Washburn and David Eckstein, for instance. They've concluded this week that the wild card is possibly the greatest invention in the history of humankind.

"It's gotta be No. 1," said Eckstein.

"I'd rate it the best ever," said Washburn.

All right. So they're biased. Without the wild card, they'd be on the 14th tee about now -- as opposed to in the Angels' starting lineup for Saturday's Game 1 of the 98th World Series. But the greatest invention ever? Come on, men. Get a grip.

Better than the light bulb?

"I don't need light," Washburn said. "I can make a fire."

OK. But how 'bout the wheel? The wheel's been pretty darned handy.

"Nah," Washburn said. "I can walk."

"I'm not sure about pizza," Eckstein hedged. "Pizza is still right up there."

Washburn shook his head. "He is pretty fond of pizza," Washburn said. "But it's not better than the wild card."

"How about hot water," Eckstein suggested, possibly losing focus slightly. "Hot water is big."

"Nope. I don't need hot water, either," Washburn said. "I can put the water on the fire."

Hmmm. Well, here's our trump card. No way the wild card is a greater invention than TV. Is it?

"I can do without TV no problem," Washburn said. "Except for football. I am from Wisconsin. So I'd miss watching the Packers."

So there you have it, friends. It's official. The two greatest inventions in the history of humankind -- 1) the wild card and 2) the Packers. You've got to feel sorry about now for all those inventors and scientists out there. They probably thought they'd done some good stuff somewhere along the way.

"Yeah, their work," Washburn pronounced, "is pretty much meaningless."

Of course, that also means that Bud Selig, Gene Orza, Bill Giles and all the people who had something to do with adding the wild-card concept to baseball are now elevated above Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell in the Inventors Hall of Fame. And we suppose there are several historians somewhere who might have a problem with that.

But now that two wild-card teams have reached the World Series for the first time, we're going to be forced to spend the next week contemplating this wild-card concept and all it has wrought. Good thing? Bad thing? Meaningless thing? It's time to decide, once and for all.

Well, if anyone is interested, we'd vote good thing. And we never thought we would say that when this contraption was introduced.

But here are some of the reasons, aside from the obvious ones, we now think it's a good thing:

  • Despite fears when the concept was introduced that the wild-card entry would be some mediocre 84-win kind of team, the fact is, the wild card is almost always a very good, if not great team. The last wild-card team that failed to win 90 games was the 1996 Orioles. There have been seven division winners that didn't win 90 since then.

  • These two teams are both excellent arguments for having a wild card. The Angels won 99 games -- more than five of the last six World Series winners (all but the '98 Yankees). They also outscored their opponents by more runs (207) than any other team in baseball -- always a sign of year-long dominance. And the Giants have been the best team in the National League the last eight weeks (during which they're 40-19).

  • The wild card creates much more fun around the trading deadline because more teams have reason to think they're in some kind of race.

  • The wild card allows a good team like the Giants time to heal and get its act together, and still have something to play for when it does. By the time Jeff Kent, Rich Aurilia and Felix Rodriguez got healthy this year, the wild-card race was still wide open. And that's a big reason they're here now.

    But somewhere in this great country, we know there are still some complainers telling stories about the 1967 AL pennant race. So we went looking around Edison Field on Friday to see if there was still anyone left who is bemoaning the sad, watered-down state of baseball.

    "Honestly, I always liked it," said the Giants' David Bell, proud member of a traditional, three-generation baseball family (Gus, Buddy, David). "I really did. I'm not just saying that because we're here now. I think more than two teams in each league deserve to get to the postseason. I think it's perfect now the way it is."

    Yeah, well, we bet that topic has been the subject of some furious debate at those Bell family reunions, though, right?

    "No," Bell said, grinning. "My dad likes it, too -- now."

    If you're waiting for somebody on one of these teams to apologize for taking the wild-card side door into the World Series, you'll be shoveling snow before you hear that apology.

    "I'm sure there are some people out there who want to say it's not old-school, it's not the way it was," said the Angels' Darin Erstad. "That's their right. But the system is the way it is. This is the system we have. And that's the way we did it. We have the opportunity as players to get here under this system. And that's what we did."

    Yes, they did. But listening to them, it became clear that if we were looking for wild-card haters, Edison Field probably wasn't the most likely place to find them. Not this week.

    The closest thing we found to a wild-card critic was the Angels' Tim Salmon, who lived through the downside of wild-card life, back in 1995.

    "That was the year they first brought it into play," Salmon said. "I thought it sounded great at the time. But here we were, with an 11-game lead in September. And if this had been the old system, if you're not in it in September, it's over. But here we were, with an 11-game lead, and we couldn't shake Seattle, because they were playing for something. They were playing for the wild card."

    Eventually, you know what happened. The Mariners kept chasing the wild card. Then, much to even their own shock, they caught the Angels. They wound up in a one-game playoff the day after the season, where "we had to face Cy Young (Randy Johnson)," Salmon groaned, and they got knocked on out of there.

    "So that year," Salmon admitted, "I wasn't real excited about the wild card -- because we'd have been in the playoffs under the old system.

    "But now, here we are in the World Series," he laughed. "And I've changed my mind."

    So obviously, what we needed here was a more impartial voice. So we phoned New York to check with one of baseball's most esteemed statisticians and historians, the Elias Sports Bureau's Steve Hirdt.

    "I don't know anybody who doesn't like the wild card at this point," Hirdt said. "Especially with these two teams. They both had a lot of wins (99 and 95, if you'd lost track), and they were very close to winning their respective division titles (four and 2 games, to be exact). ... If you just looked at the eight teams in the playoffs and you didn't know who the wild-card teams were, you wouldn't think these teams were any less qualified than anybody else."

    These two clubs also benefit from having this trail blazed for them by the beloved '97 Marlins, the first wild-card champions. That team used that occasion to build an everlasting championship tradition that endured for, oh, at least 45 minutes.

    Nevertheless, just because the wild-card system is now entrenched doesn't mean it can't be improved. Many folks have long thought the wild-card team ought to face some kind of meaningful penalty in the postseason, simply because it didn't finish first -- and because, in baseball, finishing first still ought to stand for something.

    The wild cards don't get home-field advantage. But we've seen this October (when the teams with home-field advantage won none of the first six series) how inconsequential that can be. So, here's an idea that several people have mentioned:

    Add another wild-card team in each league -- but with this caveat: The two wild-card teams in each league would have to play a one-game playoff on the day after the season just to advance to the next round. Loser goes home. Winner goes on.

    Here are the advantages that plan has over the current system:

  • It makes finishing first much more important -- because the winner gets a bye and sets its rotation, while the wild card has to play a risky one-and-done game just to get to the Division Series.

  • You reduce the impact of what Hirdt calls "The Pedro Factor" -- i.e., the chance of a wild-card team with one dominant starter stealing a first-round series because that Pedro-type guy starts and wins twice. The assumption is that the dominant pitcher would have to start the one-and-done game, so he could come back only once in the next round.

  • And you get the postseason off to a wild and compelling start, with an NCAA basketball-tournament kind of drama hanging over that one-game playoff.

    Great plan. Why not?

    "Nobody is more traditional than me," Hirdt said. "And from that standpoint, I think the most important part of this plan is that during September, when two teams are fighting for first place and they know both of them are going to make the playoffs, it forces them to really put out their best and not play them as exhibition games, because there's a tangible reward for finishing first."

    Currently, on the other hand, the reward for finishing first is that the Yankees and A's and Braves and Diamondbacks get to sit home and watch the teams they just finished beating play in the World Series.

    So we're guessing those teams might not be thinking the wild card is the greatest invention since the microwave. But that's only because they just haven't seen the light yet.

    And that light ought to be arriving the next time they make it as a wild card and find themselves where the Angels and Giants are today -- playing a World Series that Thomas Edison undoubtedly would have thought of it he hadn't been so busy trying to illuminate his office.

    Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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